A Token of God's Grace: A Theological Variety Show Mixes Humor, Music, and Cultural Analysis

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THEY DON'T SERVE Powdermilk Biscuits in Collins Alumni Auditorium, on the campus of Nashville's Lipscomb University. There's no Guy's All-Star Shoe Baud, and Guy Noir is nowhere to be seen. The ushers handing out programs aren't members of The Professional Society of English Majors, and if Brother Preacher ever got hold of Garrison Keillor, he might Bible-thump him all the way back to Lake Wobegon.

Still, if A Prairie Home Companion ever moved South and got religion--or at least went to divinity school--it might look a lot like Tokens.

The theological variety show, hosted by Lipscomb professor Lee Camp, bills itself as "Too Serious for Public Radio. Too Edgy for Christian Radio. Too Much Fun to Miss." It features a house band of A-list Nashville musicians, musical guests such as Vince Gill, and thinkers such as Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Hubert Locke. There are also the Token Radio Players, whose "Dispatches from the Bible Belt" would give Dusty and Lefty a run for their money.

At a live show in June, for example, the Players introduced their audience to the "Guns and Moses Day-Care Center" in a skit inspired by the Tennessee legislature's recent decision to allow patrons to carry guns in bars. "What's next," Camp asked, "guns in preschool?"

"If you take guns out of the hands of children," the fictional day care's head mistress said, "then only criminal children will have guns."

It's part of the show's sideways approach to addressing theology and social issues. If he can get people to laugh, Camp says, they are more willing to listen. "We try to use the humor and music to sneak up on people, and get them to look at substantive issues."

The inspiration for Tokens came from a New Year's Eve show hosted by Garrison Keillor in Nashville several years ago. Camp, who'd been a fan of A Prairie Home Companion for years, began to wonder if Keillor's approach would work for talking about social justice and theological issues. He especially considered how a song can pierce the heart of a matter, in a way a sermon or lecture can't.

"Songwriters can get at important theological questions much quicker than theologians," he said. "And they do it using metaphors that aren't God-talk. It's a very compelling way to get at substantive questions."

That doesn't mean Tokens is simply a Christian imitation of Keillor's show. While Camp and his cast deal with theology, they are after something bigger--glimpses of God's action in the world, or tokens of grace.

There have been six shows so far--all of which are housed on the Tokens Web site--and each carries a theme. The first, "The Appalachian Longing for Home," debuted in February 2008 and was followed by "Jubilee: Land, Greed, & Grace in American Folk," "The Politics of Jesus," "The Christmas Revolution," "Justice Songs," and--in June--"Stories We Live By."

Each episode is bookmarked by Camp's brief monologues on the evening's theme. "I give myself the same amount of time a songwriter has," he says. "Three minutes at the beginning, and three minutes at the end." In between those two monologues, something magical usually happens.

The June show included Buddy Greene singing John Prine's "Paradise," a story of one man's dismay after strip-mining for coal had ruined his childhood swimming hole: "Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man," he sang. …